One Track Mind: Ergo with Mary Halvorson, "The Widening Gyre" (2012)

photos: Anne-Claire Rohé

For their third album, the offbeat experimental jazz-rock trio Ergo brought in a few guest performers to shake things up a bit. If you’re going to introduce any musicians who can be disruptive and still find a place within the strange sounds of avant modern music, you could hardly come up with a better choice than the forward thinking guitarist Mary Halvorson, and that’s just what Ergo did for their 2012 offering If Not Inertia.

Ergo themselves have been forward-thinking since their formation in 2005, coming forth with their first album Quality Anatomechanical Music Since 2005 the following year, succeeded in 2009 by their first one for Cuneiform Records, multitude, solitude. Led by trombonist/computer effects wizard Brett Sroka and completed by keyboardist Carl Maguire and drummer Damion Reed, Ergo’s music shares the gradually unfolding qualities of ambient music, but it’s not quite ambient. They share the capricious spirit of jazz, but they’re not quite jazz, either. And they borrow the episodic structure of chamber music, although you can’t call this chamber music. Add to that the smart use of electronics a la Radiohead, but electronics that blends in organically, so most of the time you don’t even notice it’s there. It’s all of the above and none of the above, if that makes sense.

“The Widening Gyre” incorporates all those things that make Ergo special, with the added bonus of Halvorson having the opportunity to show why she’s special, too — even as only a supporting player. The song is a rising and receding ominous swirling mass of acoustic and computer-generated noises both tonal and atonal, but making up a definable whole. Halvorson never competes with Sroka’s commanding extended notes as the lead voice, but she doesn’t need to. Her full-bodied tone plays the same seminal role John McLaughlin assumed on Miles Davis’ “Shhh/Peaceful”: lingering and easing into the gaps left behind after Maguire’s broken chords and Reed’s unsettled beats that provide the undercurrent for Sroka’s simple but dramatic trombone lines. Her uniquely styled arpeggios almost make each note its own chord, and the bending effects she applies to them make her guitar slip in and out of dissonance with uncommon agility. In a motif where the dissonant acts as a stimulant to the melody, that odd guitar makes a perfect fit.

Credit Brett Sroka for having the conception, leadership and know-how to make mind-stimulating songs like “The Widening Gyre.” Also credit him for having the gumption and vision to utilize one of progressive jazz’s most talk-about new talents in a way that fully justifies all the hoopla surrounding her.

If Not Inertia released on February 14 by Cuneiform Records. Visit Ergo’s website.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron